Democracy balances on the brink in Kansas and U.S. Too many of us choose not to notice.

October 19, 2022 3:33 am
An original copy of the Declaration of Independence

An original copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed the evening of July 4, 1776, is seen at the exhibition “Democracy Plaza” at Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Kansas and all of the United States teeter on the edge of a treacherous canyon. If we drop into that vast gulf, climbing out again will take years if not decades.

Yet nearly half of us, if not more, prefer to ignore the yawning abyss.

As evidence, I present two separate yet interconnected stories. The first appeared in Kansas Reflector over the weekend. It outlined the potential consequences of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Called Moore v. Harper, the dispute involves a bizarre concept called the independent state legislature theory.

As Minnesota Reformer reporter Michelle Griffith explained, if the nation’s high court backs this theory, the consequences may well be cataclysmic. State lawmakers might “enact laws to make it harder to vote in federal elections without review from state courts. Legislatures could shorten the early voting period, restrict mail-in balloting to certain counties and require voter ID, among other measures.”

Legislatures — including the supermajority GOP one foisted upon Kansas — could have their way with election law. State courts couldn’t stop them.

Griffith writes further that “administration of the presidential election is under a different clause, so at stake is solely the administration of congressional elections.” Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent track record, however, that hardly reassures.

Now, keep that scary scenario in mind while I pivot to the second story.

The New York Times noted last week that more than 370 Republican candidates running this year have voiced doubts about the 2020 election. That’s a majority of those running from the party.

Kansas has eight GOP candidates for U.S. Congress, governor, secretary of state and state attorney general. Five of them have expressed such doubts about election integrity. (Let’s not forget the role of current attorney general and gubernatorial hopeful Derek Schmidt in challenging President Biden’s election.)

A view of the front portico of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Phil Roeder/Getty Images)


The outer limits

Consider all of this for a moment.

An entire party has fallen in thrall to the Big Lie of a stolen election. Simultaneously, the U.S. Supreme Court may hand the keys for statewide elections to Republican-dominated legislatures. What could possibly go wrong?

If past is prologue, you can expect a bunch of conspiracy theories and terrible laws.

Just this last session, GOP Secretary of State Scott Schwab had to press back repeatedly against out-0f-state hucksters. Lawmakers showed themselves as all to willing to play along. Current attorney general candidate Kris Kobach fought an epic five-year battle against the ACLU, defending unconstitutional voter registration limits. Meanwhile, public trust in our institutions continues to erode.

With a background like that, we can expect the Kansas Legislature to press the outer boundaries of the independent state legislature theory if given the go-ahead. The mind boggles at the misshapen districts they might draw or the towering obstacles they might erect to dissuade voters. Who knows? They might decide that only land-owning men who sign patriot pledges and carry firearms can cast ballots.

The canyon we face in Kansas appears particularly treacherous to me because of Republican dominance.

Even if the U.S. Supreme Court clears the way for troubling doctrine, purple and blue states will surely see stiff resistance to bad policy. But the number of Kansas Republicans who would vote against the leaders of their party on election matters could well be vanishingly small. And once the laws are passed, without court review, Democrats could be shut out of winning congressional elections in the Sunflower State ever again.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I would feel more comfortable if I saw more in the party standing up for our system of shared governance.

They could start by denouncing former President Donald Trump’s continued barrage of acidulous lies. Instead, those who oppose the man have largely become Democrats or independents. Those who remain maintain either an uncomfortable silence or full-contact embrace for the would-be Potomac potentate.

Jan. 6 committee shows video of Donald Trump
A video of former President Donald Trump is played during a hearing Oct. 13, 2022, by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


On the horizon

I don’t write this column because I expect to change anyone’s mind right away.

I write because we all must understand what’s coming.

I write because I believe it’s the responsibility of all of us in the news media — reporters and editors and opinion columnists alike — to warn about what we see on the horizon.

Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently weighed in journalists’ responsibility in the age of Trump. In an excerpt from her new book, she admitted that the news media hadn’t sufficiently communicated the former president’s danger to our country. Too often, reporters found themselves distracted by spectacle or constrained by norms that no longer applied. We can all learn lessons from that experience and apply them to the future.

“Those who deny the outcome of the 2020 election certainly don’t deserve a media megaphone for that enduring lie, one that is likely to reemerge in the presidential campaign ahead,” she recommends. “But the media should go one step further: When covering such a politician in other contexts — for example, about abortion rights or gun control — journalists should remind audiences that this public figure is an election denier.”

Sullivan adds: “Unfortunately, many media organizations — increasingly owned these days by huge corporations or hedge funds — seem more interested in ratings and profits than in serving the public interest. So, they are extremely hesitant to offend groups of viewers or voters, including the many Republicans who have signed on to the lie about the 2020 election being stolen.”

Kansans have turned out to support abortion rights and moderate politicians. Some 570,000 Kansans voted for Joe Biden, more than 41% of those who turned out in 2020. But voting was never sufficient — for Republicans or Democrats. We all must engage. We all must watch.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell wrote.

We can still avoid the canyon.

But only if we see it first.


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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.